Commissioner’s worries over charges for childrens services

THE Children’s Commissioner for Wales has expressed serious concern over council plans to introduce charges for children’s social services.

One local authority intends to bring in such charges in the autumn, while at another council committee members have inserted the concept of charging into their forward work programme.

Although the charges would not apply when children are removed from their families because they are seen as being at risk, there are worries that families under pressure may be reluctant to let their children go into care because of the cost.

At Conwy Council, charges of up to £168.18 a week are due to be introduced when parents ask for their children to be taken into care because they cannot cope.

A report to the council’s cabinet said: “… from a social work perspective, having a charging policy can act as a deterrent to abandoning the responsibility for caring for a child, a responsibility which parents have in law.”

A spokeswoman for Conwy Council said: “The charging policy has been developed based on good practice in England, where such policies have been effectively implemented.

“The policy would have no impact upon decisions that need to be made about the protection of children. There is no charge for placing children who the county deems must be removed for their own safety.

“The charges apply to those cases where parents request accommodation of their children. In every case where a child is in need of accommodation the child’s need is reviewed at a panel chaired by senior managers. This is a check on decisions and ensures children are properly safeguarded.

“Our motivation in bringing forward a charging policy is twofold: to ensure that parents understand that they have a continued responsibility for their children, even if the child is accommodated. Secondly, to ensure that those most in need benefit from the resources Conwy has available.

“Conwy’s cabinet approved the recommendation. We expect to start implementing the charging policy in autumn 2009.”

Meanwhile, Monmouthshire County Council’s children and young people scrutiny committee intends to look at the principle of charging early next year, although Tracy Allison, the head of children’s services, said: “The social services directorate has no plans to recommend a charging policy at present within children’s social services. We would not want to deter any family, child or young person from approaching us to seek assistance or advice.

“Our select committees are not decision-making bodies. They are there to scrutinise and suggest ways that services can be as efficient as possible. This means they often look at how other authorities work and consider whether or not we can learn from other councils’ successes.”

But Monmouthshire Labour councillor Armand Watts said: “This is the third time the council has brought this onto the agenda. Regardless of what is going on in other local authorities, here in Monmouthshire the political consensus is that it is unacceptable to charge for children’s services.

“Families are less likely to present themselves to the authorities and this could lead to further family breakdown.”

Keith Towler, pictured, the Children’s Commissioner, said last night: “While I understand the financial pressures faced by local authorities across the country, what is imperative is that the best interest of the child is placed at the heart of all decision making.

“It seems to me that this proposal could potentially be a short-term solution to a long-term problem. If families were deterred by the introduction of this proposal it could lead to adverse consequences and could even lead to family breakdown or homelessness.

“I sincerely hope that the rights and welfare of children and young people are not being compromised when decisions are taken around identifying priorities and allocating resources.

“These vulnerable children have a right to be protected and kept safe. I will be seeking reassurance that any decision made will take into account the wellbeing of these children and not be based on cost cutting.”